Eckhart Gillen


Is Hans Brosch an Informel Painter?

Critique of a Stylistic Term from the Time of the Cold War

For a long time, the artist Hans Brosch, born in Berlin in 1943, was considered an insider’s tip both in East and West Germany, until he was discovered in the mid-1970s by French art critics, and invited to the Ninth Biennale of Young Art to Paris, against the will of the leadership of the Association of Artists of the GDR. There, the German art critic Werner Spies, who lived in Paris, noticed him and was surprised that the collages of this artist from the GDR “do not permit any figurative associations.”1 In the beginning, Brosch was met with a great deal of curiosity, because he was considered rather exotic in the art world of the GDR, which seemed to devote itself exclusively to the messages of a firmly established, albeit since the 1950s reformed, socialist realism. After his move from East to West Berlin in 1979, however, this interest in an artist from the GDR who painted non-figuratively decreased quickly, in spite of his work being promoted by some renowned West German galleries.

Hans Brosch came into the limelight of Western publicity at a time when in West Germany the significance of non-figurative art was already challenged2 by Pop Art and Op Art, conceptual art, and above all by the photorealism hailing from the US and the “new forms of realism” as they were presented at documenta 5 at the beginning of the 1970s. For the first time, the art of the GDR was recognized in a positive light in this context as related to the current trend in the West. In his book Neue Formen des Realismus: Kunst zwischen Illusion und Wirklichkeit Peter Sager devotes to the representatives of the Leipzig School a chapter of their own in the context of Pop Art, “Capitalist Realism” in Dusseldorf, and “Critical Realism” in West Berlin.3

Before this background, the paintings by Hans Brosch were prematurely brushed off as anachronistic—because they were supposedly indebted to the Informel of the 1950s. Even while preparing this first comprehensive retrospective, the curator Carsten Probst was repeatedly told by museum people and collectors that Brosch was only a belated painter of Informel. Hans Platschek, an Informel painter, who changed sides in 1959 and became an art critic, makes the same allegation to the West German painters of Informel: In comparison to the Abstract Expressionism of the Americans and the Tachism of the French, they were in the beginning of the 1950s a decade too late and took on features that “were similar to the belated Impressionism of a Liebermann, Slevogt, or Trübner.”4

Such judgments, looked at art historically, are so relative. Using the example of Hans Brosch, two fundamental misunderstandings in the art critical exchange between East and West Germany—that remain to this day—are brought into focus. Firstly, an artist from the GDR was supposedly only interesting for the art public in West Germany if he, like for example Werner Tübke, operates beyond the artistic styles dealt with on the Western art market. Secondly, strangely enough, in reference to the GDR, all painters painting non-figuratively are always across the board assigned to Informel. An example is the title of a comprehensive catalogue for a touring exhibition Gegenwelten: Informelle Malerei in der DDR—Das Beispiel Dresden.5 An Informel in the sense of all-over painting without perspective, without a top and a bottom, which dismisses all rules of composition and harmony, adnd wants to be programmatically informal, never existed in the GDR, with the exception of a few paintings by Hans Christoph and Carlfriedrich Claus in Annaberg-Buchholz. Especially between 1959 and 1961, Claus wrote numerous, mainly asemantic vibration texts such as his 1960 Textvibrationsstudien (Versuch einer Herstellung eines Feldes). The works on paper are covered with countless letters, in dynamic circles of strings of writing, which causes an oscillation. These psychographic exercises aim at activating things unconscious and buried.

The attribution of Hans Brosch’s painting to Informel makes no sense in several respects. He himself sees in his painting by all means gestural elements, which however should not be associated “only with action painting or Informel.”6 The principle of all art of modernism—to destroy in order to be able to create something new —also is part of his point of departure for creative work, but that doesn’t make him an Informel painter. Brosch emphatically rejects the element of the accidental, which is a particular characteristic of Informel. In reply to Carsten Probst’s question whether chance every played a role in his work, Brosch answers: “No, never. And if, it was always controlled chance.”7

But even a Pollock, whose all-over paintings look “as though a whirling dervish had gotten loose among the paint cans,”8 made the point that there are no accidents in his painting, whereas the seemingly coolly calculating pop artists liked to operate with accident. The apolitical, internalized abstract art, which only expressed the pure self, could nevertheless become a weapon in the Cold War of the ideologies. As Sven Beckstette has shown, the Informel painters Karl Otto Götz and K.R.H Sonderborg, with their painting of gestural spontaneity, which programmatically does not want to reveal any dimensions of content or thematics, have nonetheless created paintings that reflect current affairs.9

These few examples demonstrate how unclear terms like Informel or Tachism, but also the term abstraction, are for the analysis and evaluation of non-figurative art. In conversation, Brosch explains that there was no “abstract scene” for him in East Berlin. “I never sought anything like this, anyway, because I never put what interests me about painting into stylistic categories.”10

The delayed and impeded reception of Hans Brosch in the West since 1975, after the short phase of being highly esteemed by art critics and collectors, is a late consequence of and a reflex reaction to the Cold War, where terms like Informel and socialist realism denoted contrary ideologies and polar ideas of man that went far beyond their meaning in the specialist terminology of art historians and critics. Starting in the US, artists after the Great War and in view of the nuclear standoff were to develop a universal language to communicate across ideological differences. Therefore in the 1950s, in the US and Western Europe there was talk of abstraction as a future “world language,”11 which however soon became both in the US and in Europe an ideologically charged polemical term against the new superpower Soviet Union and its satellites. The art of the avant-garde, which for example in the 1921 manifesto by Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling understood itself as a “universal language” because its foundation lies in the “concordant way of seeing forms of all people,”12 in exhibitions and publications of the 1950s became a medium in the global cultural struggle between a liberal market economy and a collectivistic planned economy. Representatives of the US government and the CIA saw in the New York group of abstract expressionists, to which artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman an Jackson Pollock belonged, a model for an art that could be understood and sold internationally; it was to propagate an anti-totalitarian view of man that has left every form of nationalism and racism behind and saw itself as a counter-model to the collective man of communism. They developed a completely new, existential form of art, including geometric abstraction, in favor of a non-hierarchical, open, and process-oriented form of painting that integrates elements of surrealist, psychic automatism, as opposed to calculating composition. The planning consciousness and the will are the death of art, claims Henri Michaux. These artists saw their art as a response to total war, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima, and they wanted to leave all isms and styles behind. These artists were convinced that it had become impossible to represent horror in the way of social realism without risking kitsch and caricatures. The cognitive process was shifted from the exterior world, and from the assumption of an objective recognisability and representability, to the cognition of one’s own potential, of the divine in man. With this attitude, art has distanced itself from all leftist utopias. It abstracts from the concrete representation of social injustice and martial violence. But it also wanted to shake off the entire burden of the European tradition. Especially Pollock’s art became nationally as well as internationally famous as the symbol of a free and confident America. It was to spread the ideology of the free individual and venture entrepreneur against the collectivism of a planned economy.

In 1960 Arnold Gehlen stated retrospectively that the Soviet Union’s proscription of abstract art had depoliticized modern western art, “because now it had become impossible to link the currently latest trend credibly with leftist political ideas. With this, the art revolution was liberated from political side noise, i.e., forced into mere art immanence. We believe that the consequences of this cannot even be assessed, the role of l’art pour l’art was downright imposed on painting, and it was pushed into a retinal opticism.”13 Precisely by declaring itself autonomous and closing itself off hermetically from the outside world,  i.e., by this seeming depoliticization, art become an effective political weapon in the competition of systems between East and West. When this form of informal art was first discussed in West Germany in 1955 in the journal Das Kunstwerk, critics immediately voiced their misgivings about this “reversal of our previous conviction that elemental things can only be dealt with through the spirit which stands in polar opposition to it.”14 In the same issue, Klaus–Jürgen Fischer regrets that there is no longer a “transfer of art into the coolness of intellect” anymore.15

When Hans Brosch began to develop his oeuvre in the 1960s, his foundations were the rigorous exercises of East-Berlin Cézannism, the magic materiality of New Objectivity, and he took inspiration from Pop Art and material collages. His work does not develop in opposition to political or artistic positions, but rather, it follows from the very beginning its very own idiosyncratic logic. Those looking for artistic dissidents in the GDR have to look elsewhere. Hans Brosch is neither a belated Informel painter, nor a belated modernist one, but rather a post-modern one, who invents new pictures from the wreckage of classical modernism left behind by the Dadaists, new pictures that are cleansed of all the ideological and political content of modernism. In her essay in this catalogue, Karin Thomas quite rightly points to the example of Gerhard Richter, who, thanks to his experience as a wall painter and propagandist of Socialist Realism is now suspicious of all ideological content that links itself with modernism, and skeptical towards any pictorial visualization of reality.

Painting in a postmodern way means to keep inventing pictures on this foundation of disillusionment and doubt. This is precisely what characterizes the broad and rich spectrum of Hans Brosch’s painting. This is why it is well worth it for us today to rediscover and contemplate his paintings.

1 Werner Spies, “Feen der Arbeitswelt und die Ausbeutung des Flohmarkts: Von China bis zur Selbstdarstellung der Avantgarde auf der Pariser Biennale junger Kunst,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 October 1975. On Spies, also see the essay by Katrin Thomas in this book, p. 46ff.

2 Interestingly enough, the first retrospective about the art of Informel had the title Thema: Informel Teil I: Zur Struktur einer “anderen” Zeit. See Thomas Kempas and Lothar Romain, eds., Thema Informel: Zur Struktur einer anderen Zeit, (exhibition catalogue, Städtisches Museum Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, and Haus am Waldsee, Berlin), Berlin 1973.

3 Peter Sager, Neue Formen des Realismus: Kunst zwischen Illusion und Wirklichkeit, Cologne 1973. See chapter IV: “Kritischer Realismus – Sozialistischer Realismus.” Mentioned are Wolfgang Mattheuer, Gerhard Kurt Müller, Willi Sitte, Werner Tübke, and Heinz Sander. Bernhard Heisig is only mentioned indirectly as the expressive painter with powerful figures who was a teacher of Zander (p. 217). In 1974, Uwe M. Schneede—with the help of the DKP, the German Comminist Party (this had to be stated for diplomatic reasons)—showed at Hamburger Kunstverein the first one-man show by a prominent artist from the GDR, Willi Sitte, followed in 1975 by an exhibition with works by Wolfgang Mattheuer. In 1977, the three Leipzig painters Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Werner Tübke, as well as the artist’s association’s president Willi Sitte from Halle, and the sculptors Jo Jastram and Werner Stötzer participated in Documenta VI in Kassel, where art from the GDR for the first time attracted international attention. The international travelling exhibition Als guter Realist muß ich alles erfinden: Internationaler Realismus heute (1978/79) at the Kunstvereins Hamburg and Karlsruhe contained works by Sighard Gille, Bernhard Heisig, Arno Rink, Horst Sakulowski, and Volker Stelzmann

4 Hans Platschek, “Congo oder die Heftigkeit,” Über die Dummheit der Malerei, (Frankfurt/Main 1985), 152.

5 Sigrid Hofer, ed., Informelle Malerei in der DDR: Das Beispiel Dresden, (Basel and Frankfurt am Main, 2006).

6 See Hans Brosch’s conversation with Carsten Probst in this catalogue, p. 98ff.

7 Hans Brosch in conversation (cf. note 6).

8 John Updike, Seek My Face, (New York: Ballantine Books 2003), 171.

9 Karl Otto Götz, Jupiter, U.D.Z, Matador, triptych 1958. The triptych with its swirls of paint and a cross of bloody muscles makes a statement against the stationing of nuclear warheads. K.R.H. Sonderborg’s Spur Andreas B. (1980) takes up elements of a photograph of Andreas Bader’s prison cell. See Sven Beckstette, “Das Historienbild im 20. Jahrhundert: Künstlerische Strategien zur Darstellung von Geschichte in der Malerei nach dem Ende der klassischen Bildgattungen.” Ph.D. Diss, Freie Universität Berlin, 2008, 13-138, 230-251.

10 Hans Brosch in conversation, cf. note 6.

11 Cf. Leopold Zahn and Georg Poensgen, Abstrakte Kunst—eine Weltsprache (Baden-Baden 1958).

12 Justin Hofmann, “Hans Richter: Constructivist Filmmaker,” in Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Stephen C. Forster (Cambridge, MA 2000), 72-91, here 72.

13 Arnold Gehlen, Zeit-Bilder: Zur Soziologie und Ästhetik der modernen Malerei, ed. Karl-Siegbert Rechberg, (Frankfurt/Main 1986 [1960], 150, emphasis in the original.

14 Rike Wankmüller, “Tachisten in den USA,” Das Kunstwerk, vol. 9, 1955/56, no. 5, 23-26, here 26.

15 Klaus-Jürgen Fischer: “Gibt es eine  ‘ganz andere’ Kunst?, Das Kunstwerk, vol. 10, 1956/57, no. 4, 52-55, here 55.